A Message for Millennials, Gen X & Y: We'll Get Through This

 

Everyone knows we are facing the worst political crisis in American history. The dreadful proclamations of Donald Trump, driven by narcissism, the mean-spirited moves by his cabinet, and the incipient evil represented by his administration, have brought us dangerously close to the path and policies of dictators, and the possibility of living with autocracy.

I’m not going to sugar-coat that terrible possibility. But I want to suggest to people younger than I, who weren’t around to experience other terrible moments in our history, that while things have never been quite this bad, we have, in many ways, been here before, and emerged on the other side intact.

Today kids duck under their desks at school to avoid gunfire. I ducked under my desk in fear of the white flash of a nuclear attack during the 1950s when the fear of Communism, Russia and nuclear war was pervasive, largely due to the Suez Canal crisis and the Cuban crisis. Luckily, the flash never came.

The Suez Canal crisis occurred when Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the canal. It ceased when European troops and the Israeli army withdrew from their invasion of Egypt, averting a lethal conflict with the Soviet Union. The Cuban crisis happened because of a frightening standoff with Russia when it pointed nuclear missiles at us from Cuba. Thankfully, President Kennedy had the skills to de-escalate the tensions, but for a time, we were on the brink of disaster – and we made it through.

In the 1950s too, America suffered through the McCarthy Era, which ended when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican and true demagogue, was brought down.  McCarthy led a real witch hunt sparked by his paranoid delusion that various sectors of the country, including the Army, had been infiltrated by Communists. Teachers, lawyers, actors, and others lost their jobs and were blacklisted, throwing the country into a state of abject fear. (My Ukrainian-born father warned me never to reveal that we were of Russian background.) In a memorable moment captured on TV, McCarthy’s fall came when lawyer Joseph Welch famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy’s travesty is akin to Donald Trump’s defamation of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the attacks on Robert Mueller, so the question Mr. Welch asked needs to be put to the president over and over again by every subsequent generation: “At long last, have you no sense of decency?”

In the 1960s, America faced some of its most terrible and frightening times. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, setting off devastating race riots across the country. A few months later, Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for president, was gunned down. The race riots and civil disturbances that ensued were shocking and the response to them horrifying. I will never forget the sight of storm troops lining the streets and bridges of Washington, DC against a backdrop of gray windowless vans waiting to take those arrested away. That, and what followed when protests against the Vietnam War were launched a few years later, left many Americans feeling our lives as we’d known them were over, and that indeed, they might literally end.

The anti-war protests began on college campuses. The students were our generation’s Parkland kids, and they, along with millions of other peace activists and protesters, ultimately stopped the war. But not before the Kent State University massacre happened in May 1970 when the National Guard killed several unarmed students.

Then came the Watergate scandal in 1972, which began with the discovery that five men had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, DC – which Nixon and his administration attempted to cover up. Because of their resistance to Congressional probes, America faced a constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s resignation.

How did we, the so-called Silent Generation, get through all that? Many important factors played a role. For one thing, we stopped being silent. We went beyond protests, marches, and donations to liberal organizations. Some of us, like Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, had the courage to be whistleblowers. But mostly, we reached a transcendent moment together. Our solidarity, stubborn resolve, acts of resistance, commitment to truth and justice, and our mutual sense that we had the power to change things brought down Nixon and others. Our voices were loud, clear and cogent, just like what we see in the Parkland students. Like them, we refused to stop, to back down, to disappear. And that, more than anything, is what will get us through the dark days we face together now.

Additionally, analysts who understand the severity of what’s happening in the Trump administration know that what we are facing is worse than what happened in Nixon’s time. Finally, along with the media, they are speaking out forcefully about the urgency of our time. No longer afraid to call “fascism,” “dictatorship” and “autocracy” into focus, Americans from every generation who aren’t blindly wedded to Trumpian travesties are calling Foul! 

It’s a start. So is the Mueller investigation, which one hopes will conclude soon with irrefutable evidence that Mr. Trump and his foot soldiers must go.

 Even then, we won’t be out of the woods for some time. So I’m not diminishing the huge challenges we face. But the lessons of our past – that we endure, fight back, resist, and ultimately emerge from darkness intact – offer, as the Parkland kids do, a rallying cry, and a modicum of comfort, even as they warn against complacency. They give us hope, and move us to action, as they remind us that evil can be defeated, if we raise our voices, stay vigilant together, and perhaps most important of all, exercise our remaining right to vote.

Is America Up to Its Newest Challenge?

We’ve been through a lot for a country with a relatively short history.  Starting with the American revolution against the British, we’ve faced many challenges that could have broken us. There was the Civil War, which cost us more American lives than any other, World War I, World War II, the 1929 stock market crash, the Dust Bowl era and various economic crises, the Vietnam War, political assassinations in the 60s and the 1970 Kent State massacre, race riots that could have divided the country again, the terrorist attack on 9-11, and more.

But what we face now is alarming in unprecedented ways. There have been bad presidents before and governments rife with corruption as well as administrations that lacked skill, compassion, and ethics. In those times, as David Kaiser wrote in TIME Magazine in 2016 after the presidential election, we overcame threats because of “the nation’s ability to come together and embark upon a great enterprise to solve a critical problem.” In the face of our current crisis, we seem unable to muster the spirit of compromise, cohesion, good judgment, and sound governance, not to mention moral compasses.  

As Kaiser wrote in TIME, “Americans are entitled to hope that the new crisis will not end with hostile armies marching through our territory and fighting battles.” He had yet to envision that cyber warfare would eliminate the need for marching troops, nor could he imagine just how disastrous a Trump presidency would be.

In a recent New York Times editorial, Sen. Orrin Hatch is quoted. “This great nation can tolerate a president who makes mistakes, but it cannot tolerate one who makes a mistake and then breaks the law to cover it up.” He was talking about President Clinton in 1999. The senator’s hypocrisy is stunning, and extremely dangerous at a time when the Republican opposition cannot own – and reverse – its behavior, even when our country is faced with monumental threats.

The Times editorial addresses the “growing possibility” that Mr. Trump might attempt to end the ongoing investigation into his campaign, his administration, and his possible obstruction of justice if not overt collusion with the Russians. Should such a moment come, The Times said, we will “suddenly find [ourselves] on the edge of an abyss, with the Constitution in [our] hands.”

If Mr. Trump succeeds in his attempts to shut down the ongoing investigations, he will have destroyed the very foundation of American democracy and rule of law, already fragile by nature because it relies upon tradition, good sense, and strong motivation for the greater good. He will, most awfully, have set himself above the law and effectively become a dictator. 

Should that terrifying scenario come to pass, it will be up to Congress to uphold our laws, maintain the separation of powers established by our founders, and keep intact the constitutional framework that has kept us a government, “of the people, for the people, and by the people” for over 200 years. There will be no time for continuing polarization in the Capital or the public square, no room for vitriol and partisanship, no benefit in clinging to harmful ideologies and hateful rhetoric. We will all be on the sinking ship together, and none of us will be singing to the end.

Everyone paying attention now acknowledges the fact that our democracy is truly threatened. We admit to feeling terrified by what could happen. We openly use the word “fascism,” so long danced around. We talk with a façade of levity about leaving if it gets much worse. We see Facebook posts of what Hitler and Goebbels said and we shudder before sharing. We learn about protesters being arrested, and the Sinclair broadcasting syndicate scripting pro-Trump messages for their many stations.

We join hashtag discussions about police brutality, racial injustice, ICE roundups, anti-Semitic and Muslim hate crimes, pro-natalist positions, abuses in education, the environment, and the interior by functionaries like Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, and Ryan Zinke. We bemoan the fact that the new Secretary of Health and Human Services is a former senior vice president for corporate affairs at Eli Lilly and Co. who served as president of Lilly USA LLC.  We worry about how the State Department can operate without a Secretary or a full staff of seasoned diplomats in a world on the brink of disaster in various parts of the world. 

We stress over the lack of access to safe and effective healthcare, none moreso than women in need of reproductive healthcare. We worry about shrinking consumer protections, reduced regulations that keep our water and air clean, and who will be seated next in our federal and Supreme courts. We fret about voter registration being tampered with, and innocent immigrant children being shipped to countries they’ve never known, and we wonder how long it will take to correct the problems created by this administration if and when we finally elect sane legislators.

But most of all, what we worry about is this:  Will politicians finally put America and its people above any consideration of personal power or benefit, and will they, at long last, have the decency and moral courage to stop the travesties of a Trump administration before it is too late?

In short, can we, together, meet America’s greatest challenge ever, and can we come back again?

 

Think It Can't Happen Here? Think Again

 

They were kids at summer camp, passing hot days in routine activity and comradery. They were also learning to speak German, singing German songs, practicing military drills and greeting superiors with Hitler salutes. Wearing Nazi-style uniforms, the children marched, took rifle practice, and raised Hitler Youth banners. There were 16 locally organized camps like this one in the 1930s.

The campers’ parents belonged to the German American Bund, people of German ancestry who formed citizens groups in many countries extolling “German virtues” and lobbying for causes helpful to Nazi Party goals. The German American Bund formed in 1936 as “an organization of patriotic Americans of German stock,” according to Alan Taylor writing in The Atlantic in June, 2017. The U.S. Bund soon boasted tens of thousands of members across 70 regional divisions.

In 1939, the Bund held an “Americanization” rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden to denounce Jewish conspiracies, FDR and others. Attended by 20,000 supporters, the 27 photos of the rally, and the children’s camps, included in Taylor’s Atlantic piece, are chilling.

As WWII began the Bund was disbanded, its leader arrested for embezzlement and deported to Germany.  But the American Bund happened.  Right here in the U.S. we had a large, active, hate-filled Nazi group training its youth to be brown-shirts. It was our own Third Reich.

Arne Bernstein, author of Swastika Nation, learned about American Nazis first-hand as a young man when a neo-fascist group threatened his Jewish neighborhood. “In the 1930s, 1940s and beyond,” he wrote on The History Reader blog in 2013, “fascism and Nazi loyalty was as American as a proverbial apple pie.”

Bernstein says the German-American Bund eventually boasted a following of 200,000 nationwide. The FBI put the number at somewhere between 6,000 to 8,000 while an American Legion study found over 25,000 members. Whatever the actual number of American Nazis, there were enough of them to develop “a nationwide system of family retreats, businesses, publications” and Americanized versions of Hitler Youth and SS squadrons. Among those who didn’t seem to have a problem with the Bund were Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, along with the 15,000 members of The Silver Legion of America.

In 1935 Sinclair Lewis published a novel called It Can’t Happen Here.  Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s making a comeback now. Lewis’s novel is a cautionary, alarming and seemingly prescient tale, about the fragility of democracy. It tells the story of an elected authoritarian president who becomes a dictator in the time of the Great Depression. The country’s new president wants to save America from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press, as the jacket cover says. Sound familiar?

Upon publication, the book originally resonated for Americans worried about the possibility of a fascist regime in this country, and the growth of such regimes abroad – think Hitler, Mussolini, and now right-wing factions rising in Europe, again in times of political upheaval and economic turmoil.

Lewis wasn’t the only one writing about the threat of fascism as American angst grew. Articles proliferated, one by Walter Lippman, who noted that the country had “come to a period of discouragement,” as Michael Meyer noted in his introduction to the novel’s new edition. Myer points out that America had its fair share of right-wing polemicists then as now. William Randolph Hearst proclaimed, for example, that “whenever you hear a prominent American called a ‘Fascist,’ you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a loyal citizen who stands for Americanism.”

By page two of Lewis’s novel, readers know what’s coming, foreshadowing a chilling sense of our own time, when a general rhapsodizes on the idea of nationalism. “Our highest ambition is to be let alone … We must be prepared to defend our shores against all the alien gangs of international racketeers that call themselves ‘governments.’ …A great nation must go on arming itself more and more…for peace….” And on goes the diatribe about isolationism, military strength, alien gangs and other perceived threats to thunderously affirming applause.

Lewis’s novel is full of fiery speeches, proselytizing pastors and politicians, simplistic rhetorical proclamations, and bizarre claims that grow more fervent as the noose tightens on a nation. While the story moves all the way to executions and concentration camps – scenarios we are not ready to imagine possible – it is still a cautionary tale, one that ends with the liberal journalist and leader of the resistance fleeing to Canada “where quiet men awaited news of freedom.”

The leader has realized too late that “the tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of … all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded [liberals] who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

That’s an analysis worthy of our attention, as Lewis’s novel is a book worth reading in these troubling times. Because it really can happen here. It already has.